When I was at the height of puberty, the popular girls I was friends with at school decided to have a “spa weekend” sleepover. We brought bathing suits for the pool, razors and Nair to remove every inch of our body hair, and self-tanner to get our glow on. I had just gone bleach blonde and was feeling awesome about myself, even if I hated how I looked in a bikini.
As we lathered up the self-tan lotion, eradicated all of the peach fuzz from our legs and self-consciously compared each other’s bodies in the mirror, I couldn’t help but feel like I belonged to a group of peers who were so much cooler than the rest of my peers. All of these girls seemed to like me, and my self-esteem soared that weekend.
We had solemnly promised to wear sleeveless shirts and shorts to school on Monday to show off our newly smooth and tan limbs. When I got home from the sleepover, I noticed that my mom had a bottle of Neutrogena “Deep Glow” self-tanning lotion in our bathroom that seemed to be calling my name. I grabbed it and voraciously plastered the orange goo over my body to make myself even tanner. As I fantasized about how awesome I’d look as a sun-kissed babe, I failed to notice that my hair had turned a slight shade of green from being overly chlorinated in the pool.
In hindsight, I totally should have stayed home from school that week. But I didn’t. Because I desperately wanted everyone to see my societally approved body alongside the popular girls who had befriended me. While I was definitely a thin kid, these young ladies always appeared to be thinner than me, especially when puberty rolled around. I wanted whatever they had going on, and I went to great lengths to look exactly like them.
I remember walking down the locker-filled halls with an ear-to-ear smile, even though I kept getting strange looks from random classmates. To my great disappointment, I walked into my class and saw that none of my friends had kept their promise. I was the only one there with shorts and a tee-shirt on, and I immediately felt a wave of embarrassment as I found my seat.
Then lunchtime rolled around, and life as I knew it would never be the same.
I heard the loud chanting as soon as I entered the dining hall. A bunch of the most popular boys in my grade seemed to be playing some funny game at one of the tables. They all had dinner rolls and orange Snapple cans in their hands, and they were laughing up a storm while they belted out the words I wish I’d never heard. As I curiously walked closer to get an earful of what they were singing, my eyes welled up with tears. These middle school boys were taking the “Oompa Loompa” song from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and adding my name into it. Worst of all, they made faces to imply that I was fat as they sang the body-shaming anthem.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been made fun of, but it was definitely the most hurtful. I’d already been called a “grandma” in fourth grade because I liked to go sock-less in penny loafers and don vintage shirts. As a kid, I thought that what I wore would be the only source of appearance-based ridicule I’d encounter, but that assumption was painfully shattered after I got my period and started developing.
As soon as I entered middle school, I was told by some random 14-year-old guy that the reason no boys liked me was because I had a fat butt. My seventh-grade boyfriend called me “wide load” behind my back after I broke up with him. And my all-time biggest crush in the whole wide world laughed in my face and loudly said me I was a “tubby bitch” when I disagreed with something he said in class.
It bears repeating that I was told all of these hurtful things while living in a body that the world considered skinny. Sure, my hips had widened a bit, boobs had appeared for the first time on my chest, and there were new stretch marks cascading across the sides of my legs from the recent changes of puberty. I’ve also always had a little junk in my trunk, but that never seemed to be a problem until the male classmates at my school made it one. By the end of seventh grade, I got the message loud and clear – boys hated my body, I was much too big in all the wrong places, and nature was trying to punish me.
Maybe if this had been the only type of bullying I’d encountered, I might not have struggled so damn hard with my self-esteem. But life at home made things infinitely worse. I was a child who endured physical and mental abuse and was verbally bashed on many occasions for physically evolving. Comments were regularly made about parts of my body that left me riddled with self-hate. I learned quickly that the only way to be truly lovable was if I conformed, became scarily skinny, and pretended I was okay all of the time. And yet, despite successfully doing all of that shit, I still encountered cruelty from the boys at my school.
I had already spent years watching movies and television shows that had me blindly believing that mean girls were the enemies to fear, and their sole purpose was to make your life a living hell. When the boys unexpectedly became the real threat to my body image and the heartbreaking reality didn’t match up with the skewed media messages I had been inundated with, I just chalked it all up as the product of my own failure to get it right as a girl.
From that shame-based place, I started obsessively monitoring my food intake and ultimately dove headfirst into a diet pill addiction and an eating disorder. Body dysmorphia also became an insidious struggle in my daily life. I went to dangerous lengths to recreate images of the skinny models I saw in magazines, but I never felt thin enough, pretty enough, or good enough.
Thirteen-year-old Lindsay didn’t deserve any of this. She deserved to feel inherent worth no matter how much her body changed and to spend her days not totally hating herself for existing. I wish I could go back in time, give that little kid a big bear hug, and assure her that she was never the problem. It’s been 23 years since I was body-shamed by middle school boys, and I finally understand now that society – and not me – was the problem all along.
Here’s the information that my seventh-grade health teachers should have included in their curriculum, but sadly didn’t. On average, a girl can gain 40-50 pounds during puberty, and a boy can gain up to 60 pounds. Stretch marks, wider hips, and breasts of various sizes are natural fucking changes that many girls encounter when they get their period.
Astonishingly, many preteen children have already been overwhelmed by media imagery that idolizes thin bodies and unrealistic beauty ideals by the time they hit puberty. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 69% of elementary school-aged girls who read magazines say that the pictures influence their idea of a perfect body, and 47% report that the images they see make them want to lose weight.
We have got to start teaching our children, no matter their gender, how damaging appearance-based bullying can be. Teasing an adolescent about the size of her butt or the width of her hips can have grave consequences when combined with the toxic diet culture that pervades our society. Boys need to be held accountable as much, if not more, than girls and taught to value and respect people of all sizes. The moment we realize how damaging and destructive it is to incorrectly teach our kids that their worth exists outside of them is the very moment we can help them discover that it’s been living inside of them since the day they were born.
I’m a mother now to a four-year-old girl, and I am doing everything in my power to ensure that she will always feel at home in her body. It begins with giving myself the love that I lacked for way too many years and mourning all of the times when my inner light was dimmed because a bunch of boys thought that it was okay to shame a girl for taking up space however she did.
As painful (and a little funny) as it is to know that I’ll never go near self-tanner again after being traumatized by the experience, it’s also empowering as fuck to know that I never needed it in the first place. Younger Lindsay was awesome all on her own, and the boys were so fucking wrong about her body.